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With few athletes to advise, Maryland athletic trainers pitching in to help contain coronavirus

Tim Happel has become accustomed to delivering disappointment.

As the head athletic trainer at Howard Community College in Columbia, Happel has often had the unenviable assignment of informing an athlete that an injury has delayed or ended his or her season. Now in his other career as an athletic trainer at MedStar Sports Medicine, he has been tasked with calling people to let them know that they tested negative for the novel coronavirus.

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“Going back to what we normally do, a lot of times we have to give the bad news like ‘You can’t play today,’ or ‘You tore your ACL, and your season’s over.’ We do that more than what we like to do,” Happel, 35, said Thursday. “So to be on the other end of it and give some positive news all day long is really nice.”

In the fight to contain COVID-19, it’s all hands on deck in the medical and healthcare professions, and that has included several athletic trainers, who have the time and desire to pitch in.

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“I like to do stuff, and I think most athletic trainers do,” said Michael Monahan, a 29-year-old athletic trainer at Urbana High School in Frederick County and Pivot Physical Therapy who has been checking the temperatures of truck drivers picking up shipments from the Pepsi warehouse in Columbia. “We’ve got a wide variety of skills that we’re capable of doing, and we like to utilize them. So sitting down and not doing anything when I can be out there working and I can be out there helping with the issue that is putting us out of work, it just seems logical that I would be working.”

Added Kelley Crowe, a 31-year-old athletic trainer at Arundel High School who also works for MedStar: “I think everybody misses the normal routine. Just being able to be a part of this and be able to help is what is really important.”

Happel, who grew up in Arbutus and graduated from Lansdowne High School and Towson University, and Crowe have assisted in field tents erected by MedStar outside area hospitals to facilitate the flow of potential patients by checking for referrals and other documentation. Since then, for the past four weeks, they have been driving to a call center in Elkridge to call those who have negative tests.

“It’s definitely hard being away from the community you’ve been involved with at high school and being away with sports, but these are just such crazy times right now that being able to be at the forefront of this pandemic and help in any way that we can is meaningful,” Crowe said. “These are such different times, and with athletic trainers, we’re utility players. You can use us in many different environments.”

Andrea Durham, a 30-year-old head athletic trainer at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring and MedStar since 2018, has been working at a drive-thru site in Bethesda for the past month. She helps collect documentation and input orders into the computer system.

“It’s been interesting because not a lot of other professions know what we do and what we can contribute,” she said. “We’re like, ‘We can do that, we can take vitals.’ That’s been pretty cool just showing them the different things we can do. So it’s nice to be used. It’s nice that we were able to get re-purposed.”

Monahan, who grew up in Mt. Airy, could no longer work at the high school when all schools in the state were shuttered March 16. Two weeks later, he was furloughed March 30 and began emailing Christy Kingan, the director of sports medicine operations at Pivot, for job opportunities.

On Monday, he began daily shifts at Pepsi, where he uses an infrared reader to check truck drivers’ temperatures. Drivers with readings between 99.5 and 100.4 degrees are given the option of another test or driving back to their homes, while drivers with temperatures exceeding 100.4 degrees are – within reason – sent home immediately.

“I’m just happy that I am doing something,” he said. “I think most people would be in my shoes. If somebody is in need – whether that’s a warehouse worker or a high school athlete – I’m going to try to help them out. It’s just kind of what healthcare professionals try to do.”

Breaking free of the usual confines associated with athletic trainers has been a priority for the Maryland Athlete Trainers Association (MATA). For the past five years, the organization has been working on avenues to expand access to athletic trainers.

On March 18, state legislators voted to pass a bill that would permit athletic trainers to work in corporate or industrial settings to help employees. The proposal, which will become law Oct. 1, will match similar legislation in 20 other states, according to Ed Strapp, who chairs MATA’s government affairs committee and is a flight paramedic for the Maryland State Police.

“They’re lifting, they’re pulling, they’re doing very athletic maneuvers in their day-to-day jobs,” he said of certain corporate and industrial employees. “Why shouldn’t they have access to athletic trainers to help them either recover from injury or prevent them from being injured?”

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Del. Karen Lewis Young, a Democrat representing Frederick County who led the effort to push the bill through the House of Delegates, said athletic trainers are an under-utilized group that can help expand their roles.

“The term athletic trainer may be somewhat of a misnomer because they’re healthcare professionals who provide treatment and services under the direction or in collaboration with physicians, and it’s in accordance with their education, training, state statutes, and rules and regulations,” she said. “And think of some of the essential workers right now. They’re working in supermarkets, they’re loading groceries, they’re loading supplies and probably at a faster rate than ever and working longer hours. Wouldn’t it be so much more convenient to have additional access to prevent and treat potential injuries?”

Strapp said athletic trainers are eager to break the conventional mold of their professions.

“What we’re seeing is that people are recognizing athletic trainers as healthcare providers more than just standing on the sidelines and giving out water bottles and running onto the fields when somebody gets hurt,” he said. “… It has allowed people to see that athletic trainers really are a broad-based medical provider and that we have a lot of skills.”

Happel, the Howard Community College athletic trainer, said he checked the athletic schedule on his cell phone Tuesday and noticed that he would have staffed a women’s lacrosse game at CCBC-Essex. But he said any sadness has been overwhelmed by being the bearer of good news.

“I think there are opportunities to help out,” he said. “… It’s really nice to be a useful part of the system and really be helpful during such a time of need for so many people. We want to be an extra set of hands. To jump in and help in the fight, it’s nice to be a part of that.”

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